At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986 two explosions ripped through the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. The reactor block and adjacent structure were wrecked by the initial explosion as a direct result of a flawed Soviet design, coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. The resulting steam explosion and the subsequent fires released at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere, though it was not until 2 p.m. on April 27th that workers were evacuated. By then 2 people were dead and 52 in hospital. Nearby buildings were ignited by burning graphite projectiles. Radioactive particles swept across the Ukraine, Belarus, and the western portion of Russia, eventually spreading across Europe and the whole Northern Hemisphere.
The graphite fires continued to burn for several days despite the fact that thousands of tons of boron carbide, lead, sand and clay were dumped over the core reactor by helicopter. The fire eventually extinguished itself when the core melted, flowing into the lower part of the building and solidifying, sealing off the entry. About 71% of the radioactive fuel in the core (about 135 metric tons) remained uncovered for about 10 days until cooling and solidification took place. 135,000 people were evacuated from a 30-km radius exclusion zone and some 800,000 people were involved in the clean up. The radioactivity released was about two hundred times that of the combined releases at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions were exposed to the radiation.
The large proportion of childhood thyroid cancers diagnosed since the accident are likely to have been caused by the fallout from radioactive iodine. Vast expanses of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond were contaminated. Two days after the explosion workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden (680 miles away) found radioactive particles on their clothing, while, the prevalence of Down's syndrome in West Berlin peaked nine months after the catastrophe.
The actual death toll is hard to determine. Greenpeace Ukraine estimates the total number to be about 32,000. The rate of thyroid cancer in children up to the age of 15 has increased 200 fold in Gomel Oblast, Belarus since the accident. The incidences of birth defects have also increased in heavily contaminated areas. Most genetic mutations resulting from exposure to radiation are recessive and, therefore, not likely to appear until those affected have grandchildren.
Millions of people have suffered from mental and emotional illnesses; from digestive disorders, high blood pressure, heart conditions, sleeplessness and alcoholism. Living conditions in the three affected republics are substandard, while the economy is deteriorating and health services are in total collapse. People are malnourished and diseases, such as tuberculosis, are on the increase.
Chernobyl was cataclysmic; the biggest man-made disaster of all time according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Nuclear rain from the Chernobyl fell as far away as Ireland. Following the explosion of Reactor No. 4 the complex was buried in a massive concrete tomb known as "The Sarcophagus." This hastily constructed structure was supposed to be replaced but a quarter of a century later it is still there and showing serious signs of wear. According to the Polish newspaper Zycie Warszawy, the surface is cracked and riddled with fissures large enough for rats to pass through. Inside it is full of mosquitoes, which are said to be 'larger than normal.' It has been suggested that the entire structure would collapse if there was earthquake, sending clouds of radioactive dust across Europe for a second time. The billions of dollars needed to improve the structure are considered to be prohibitive.
It is against this background that the Los Angeles artist Diana Thater made 'Chernobyl', a powerful video installation that catalogues the devastation left behind in the wake of the disaster. Thater spent time filming in the existentially named 'Zone of Alienation', the abandoned 100 mile radius that surrounds the site of the accident. Filling the interior of Hauser and Wirth's Piccadilly gallery her multiple screen video charts, in a series of filmic palimpsests, the eerie stillness of the eroded and crumbling architecture and the invasion of wildlife into an area now completely abandoned by humans.
The haunting, dreamlike footage of this post-apocalyptic landscape depicts the desolate remains of Prypait, the purpose-built town constructed to house the plant's workers. Here we see abandoned class rooms and the collapsed carcass of the movie theatre where, amid the detritus, a grand piano stands as if still awaiting a pianist. What is particularly uncanny is that because of the way the projectors are installed the viewer's silhouetted shadow becomes superimposed on the landscape like the trace of a radiated victim. This may not have been intentional but it is powerful incidental intervention in the work.
Chernobyl is the only post-human landscape on earth, the only test tube example of what the world might be like after a global nuclear holocaust. Although the city is in ruins it is still recognizably a city, a perfectly preserved 1970s Soviet town where, only minutes before the explosion, people had been getting on with their lives. There is something of the feel of the concentration camp about the place. Rusted beds in an abandoned maternity ward and piles of children#s shoes speak of a once vital community, a calendar for 1986 flaps on a peeling wall, a memorial to a single tragic moment. Electricity pylons stride through the landscape like ghosts. Autumn leaves blow in the wind reminding of cycles of decay and renewal. In the absence of humans wild animals - foxes, swans and most significantly a sub-species of the rare and endangered Przewalski Horse that once faced extinction in its native habitat in central Asia - now roam freely in this cityscape turned wilderness.
For over two decades Thater has explored the precarious relationship between culture and nature. Through her complex layering of filmic and physical space she juxtaposes prelapsarian images of nature with the shards of a collapsed civilisation, thereby contrasting man's successes with his abject failures. The work highlights many things – a falling out of love with science, the disintigration of a political system and a way of life. With the Chernobyl explosion a man-made catastrophe abruptly halted conventional notions of time and progress. Yet it seems that, even when man overreaches himself, the urgent imperative of nature to go forth and multiply cannot be completely quelled. This starkly beautiful work is both a cause for despair at man's hubris and optimism at life's tenacious hold.
Diana Thater Chernoby at Hauser and Wirth, London from 28 January to 5 March 2011